patriarchy, female deity, and my teenage angst
I was in Sunday School, listening to a lesson about the priesthood. At 15, I was chronically bored with everything, but the teacher piqued my interest when he transitioned to that obligatory part of the lesson that justifies its existence in a co-ed lesson manual.
“A man is not better than a woman just because he has the priesthood,” Brother Hill said, “Remember, a man needs to be married to a woman in order to attain the highest degree of glory. Me and my wife” – and I remember him nodding to his wife, who was hovering in the corner (inasmuch as it’s possible to hover whilst sitting) – “Together, we will be Elohim.”
This seemed plausible to me conceptually, since I’d heard somewhere that “Elohim” was Hebrew for “gods.” For deity in the plural. An idea dawned on me, and I decided to try it out on my oh-so-progressive teacher.
“So,” I ventured, “If ‘Elohim’ refers to two gods, and you just said that couples make up ‘Elohim,’ does that mean every time we mention ‘Elohim,’ like in the scriptures or when people use it in prayers, we’re talking about Heavenly Father and Heavenly Mother?” Had I unburied the hidden Mother? Had I single-handedly absolved Mormonism of sexism?
A look something like “oh-damn-this-is-why-I-shouldn’t-teach-teenagers” crossed Brother Hill’s face. Nonono, he told me, “Elohim” in the scriptures alwaysalways refers to God and Jesus Christ, and we should neverever think we’re praying to Heavenly Mother, since that’s an abomination and people have been excommunicated for it and stuff. Now, back to the manual . . .
* * *
My feminist “awakening” was more tautological than epiphanic: feminism was just a label that fit my mentality. Of course women should have equal rights. Of course women should be able to control their own bodies. Of course women should be able to work outside the home. Of course we should honor feminist activists from the past. Of course we still need feminist activists. In many ways, my commitment to feminist causes was a frictionless realization.
But looking back at my Mormon feminist awakening evokes the same memories as a particularly horrible breakup: tears, a sense of betrayal, feelings of abandonment, depression, even a (brief) dislike for men. When I was 17 I found Women and Authority, that glorious compilation of essays about re-emerging Mormon feminism. On the one hand, I was elated. I wasn’t alone – other people thought like me. I wasn’t the only person who wanted a Heavenly Mother, or the only one bothered by a hegemony of suits and pews of floral dresses. On the other hand, though, learning more about Mormon history only compounded my angst. Women used to exercise more priesthood authority, and Relief Society used to be an independent organization. You know the story. So what happened? Why hadn’t I inherited that Mormonism? Why wasn’t what seemed to be my faith tradition corresponding with what I learned in Sunday School?
Fast forward four years. I’ve stopped wondering if this General Conference, the Prophet will announce that the priesthood will extend to all worthy members, regardless of sex. Or that the Church will officially apologize for its involvement with Prop 8. I’ve stopped praying for the Twelve to impart some revelation about Heavenly Mother. In fact, I’ve stopped praying. At this point in my life, God is dead, and I’m exhilarated by the responsibility a benignly indifferent universe demands of me.
* * *
I still think about the look on the face of Brother Hill’s wife, both before and after her husband’s declaration and retraction of gender equality. It was frozen in a simper, rabbity and nervy. She didn’t say anything. She never said anything (I can’t even remember the way her voice sounded). I couldn’t tell if she was proud to be part of her husband’s Elohim, or if the thought of an eternity of innumerable and heedless earth children troubled her. Her placidity scares me. And her silence encapsulates why, for all my resignation, Mormonism infuriates me enough to still want to change it.
I’m a feminist and, in the ethnic sense, I’m a Mormon. I’m committed to the Mormon feminist community, but I’m also committed to authenticity. I’m still figuring out how to negotiate this liminal space I’ve constructed. But so far, I haven’t been in a place “truer” to both my faith tradition and my still-fragmented self.
2 Responses to “patriarchy, female deity, and my teenage angst”
Progressive Sunday school teachers are seriously the best. This isn’t related to feminism, but when I was sixteen, I had a teacher who played the first chapter of Stephen Hawking’s A Brief History of Time while the class followed along in Genesis and Moses, pointing out the similarities in the progression of the two narratives as we went. The activity was interesting and even informing, but the principle behind it is the most vivid part of the experience in my memory today.
I’m encouraged by your example of authenticity, and I’m sure your voice will resonate with others navigating similar waters.
Thanks, Asriel! And, yes, my favorite Sunday School lessons/RS lessons/talks have always leaned secular. Like, always. I’m incorrigible.